Thursday, September 17, 2015

Consumed By the Game

For the obsessive and driven Nick Saban, every day is Fourth and Inches.

By Stephen Schmalhofer
September 4, 2015

Saban: The Making of a Coach, by Monte Burke (Simon & Schuster, 352 pp., $27)

Tom Buchanan, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby, “had been one of the most powerful ends that ever played football at [Yale]—a national figure in a way, one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savors of anti-climax.” I’m no Tom Buchanan: I was an average college football player who ate just enough peanut butter to crack Yale’s regular defensive line rotation. I had only two encounters with college football greatness. The first came during my junior season, when we lost to the University of San Diego, then coached by a human swarm of swagger named Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh soon left to rebuild Stanford’s program before taking the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl and finally landing back at his alma mater, Michigan. The second was the campus presence of Yale’s legendary coach emeritus, Carm Cozza. Still able to flex old muscles, he addressed our team before “The Game” against Harvard in the tradition of Yale’s T.A.D. Jones in 1916: “Gentlemen, you are now going to play football against Harvard. Never again in your whole life will you do anything so important.”

No, my football career was not the peak. The rush of a hard tackle and the thrill of victory foreshadowed more satisfying joys: my wedding day, the birth of our daughter. But for men like Harbaugh and Cozza and most other leading coaches, the game remains consuming, defining much of their adult lives. And if there is a coach in the game today who exemplifies the complete giving over of self to the game, it is Nick Saban, the first coach to win national championships at two schools and the subject of Monte Burke’s entertaining new biography.

During his childhood in Fairmont, West Virginia, Saban’s father, Big Nick, sought financial independence and became the proprietor of the local gas station. From Big Nick, Saban inherited a powerful temper, an allergy to unfinished work, a desire for control—and a passion for football. Whenever Saban fell short of his father’s expectations, Big Nick would take his son down into the coal mines to remind him of alternative paths available to him. From these childhood lessons emerged the essence of his coaching career: to nurture perfection out of what nature provided.

Like his subject, the biographer never lingers long in one place. Burke avoids tedious game-by-game season recaps that grind many sports biographies to a halt. Instead, Burke lets The Process—Saban’s basic coaching philosophy and method—take over. Some coaches develop reputations for play-calling wizardry, others as player-friendly motivators. Saban is known for his obsessive yet incremental approach, which breaks success down into the smallest possible units and forces players to focus entirely on the next step. He learned the technique from Lionel “Lonny” Rosen, a psychiatry professor he met while coaching at Michigan State. A player following The Process won’t daydream about holding a trophy at the end of the season, waste energy dwelling on mistakes, or relax following a successful play. Instead, the player moves forward to the next practice drill, weight-room rep, frame of film study, or dining hall meal. Not all players embraced The Process, especially those whom Saban inherited from his predecessors, but many thrived, recognizing that it brought stability and clarity, maximized their talent, and even turned them into men. “If I’m a failure in life or in anything I do, it’s my fault. There’s no excuse for me to fail,” remarked former player Brandon Gibson.

Saban developed The Process during early coaching stops at Toledo and Michigan State, but he always sought more resources, program control, and recruiting appeal. He found them all at LSU, where he built a Keystone Pipeline of talent from Louisiana high schools and methodically identified, evaluated, and courted bigger, faster, and stronger players. He obsessively researched his recruits—and their families, with a special focus on charming the mothers. Saban mastered the NCAA rulebook and applied jesuitical interpretations of recruiting regulations to gain maximum access to potential players. When his peers were unable (or unwilling) to match his relentless efforts, they lobbied for new rules to limit his recruiting activity.

Echoes of old coaching clich├ęs rang in my ears as Burke recreates Saban practices and pep talks. Herein lies the hidden danger of this book: that a thousand lesser coaches will copy Saban’s flaring temper, sound bites, and obsessiveness without first earning the authority of a trusted leader. Pity the young high school players whose coach parrots repetitive Sabanisms like “Do your job!” and flails angrily over trivialities like kids wearing their hats backward. They should remember Saban’s own failure to earn this authority during a short head-coaching stint with the Miami Dolphins, where veterans like Zach Thomas and Keith Traylor refused to buy in to his leadership.

Saban then returned to college football as head coach at the University of Alabama. His successes there and at LSU contributed to the growth of the SEC Network, which saw $600 million in revenues in 2014. He offers his players the hope (and for the best, the expectation) of a lucrative rookie contract in the NFL. A small army of therapists, tutors, film analysts, chefs, equipment managers, interns, and other staffers keep his players fueled, fit, and eligible to play their best. But an underworld lurks beneath the well-manicured grass of this football field. Sleazy agents skulk for clients, with little regard for the risk to the amateur eligibility of the players they hustle. Scammers sell the promise of performance-enhancing snake oil like “deer antler spray” and “hologram bracelets” to players looking for shortcuts.

Few current coaches are as talented as Saban, but his legacy will be that of a turnaround artist, not an institutional legend. Some joke that Alabama should have built his bronze stadium statue on wheels rather than a pedestal. Burke avoids the hagiography typical of his genre, in which pages often appear to have been copied from the media kits of university sports information directors, but he ultimately fails to make sense of Saban’s wanderlust, his frustrating tendency to pick up and leave just as his teams improve. Saban has vowed to write his own story when he is done coaching. I guarantee it won’t be as much fun to read.

Burdened with the expectations of fans spoiled by success, driven by The Process to see only weaknesses in the midst of an undefeated streak, and compelled to prepare for the next season only hours after winning a national championship, for Nick Saban, every day is Fourth and Inches.

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